NOTHING STANDS ALONE: NOT THE EARTH, NOR THE SKY, NOR THE SUN: ODE TO TEACHERS WITHOUT WHOM WE WOULD NOT BE.
With a background in theater Pina Bausch first enlightened me about the connection between theater and dance. I studied her, researched her, followed her productions, and absorbed her Tanztheater concepts and methods. About the same time Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came into my life. Ailey's "Sinner Men" made me want to become a dancer, and so began my trips to New York. Somehow along the way other teachers came that showed me that I did not have to settle for modern dance. Alexandre Proia (Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet) and years later Lupe Calzadilla (Cuban National Ballet and Royal Ballet) helped me mold the classical dancer I had in me, one awkward step at a time. I owe it to Alexandre Proia to have eventually moved to New York and applied myself to refining that classical spirit within me with the help of pointe teachers like Celia Merino at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Sonia Melo, American Swiss Ballet. While traveling around the world, it has been Valentina Chtchepatcheva (prima ballerina at the Municipal Theater in Santiago, Chile) and Ekaterina Shchelkanova (Vaganova Ballet Academy, St. Petersburg, Russia) who have continued to nurture my classical spirit, while Laura Bernasconi (Alonzo King Lines Ballet) arduously polished my contemporary ballet style. I owe much to all of them, and to others I left unmentioned. Their teaching has propelled me forward in more than an artistic way. Not all of them may have believed in me, but that did not hold me back, for it was for me to believe in myself, and I did, and still do.
Remarkable Ballet Teachers: Sculpting Bodies, Sculpting Spirits.
I have a history with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since I first saw the company perform in Berkeley, California in the 1990s. Upon seeing “Sinner Men,” from Revelations, I knew I had to dance! Celia Merino, former Ailey dancer and later ballet teacher saw me for the first time when I was a beginner dancer at age 28, at an Alvin Ailey workshop in Springfield, Missouri. She noticed my port the brasand said “Keep dancing.” About seven years later, at another Alvin Ailey workshop in Bozeman, Montana, upon noticing me once again she said. “You are working well. Keep working like that.” It was not until many years later when I had the chance to take Ms. Marino’s classes regularly at Alvin Ailey that the addressed me once again saying “You are doing this! Keep doing it!” Ms. Marino proved to me that teaching was an art, and I watched with delight how she sculptedher students and felt honored to be sculptedby her as well.
Lupe Calzadilla, former principal with the National Ballet of Cuba, and another “sculptress” appeared in my life after I had progressed to an intermediate level taking open company classes at Alonzo King Lines Ballet in San Francisco for seven years. Ms. Calzadilla had sculptedher two daughters, who became professional dancers, one with San Francisco Ballet and the other with Boston Ballet. And she sculptedus, seeing us all as dancers, regardless of our age and unorthodox training, which was a breath of fresh air. In those times many teachers looked upon adult ballet dancers as an amorphous phenomenon; nobody seemed to know what to do about us, much less what to do with us.
Moving to advanced/professional levels, I’ve had the privilege of studying privately with Karina Elver from the Royal Danish Ballet, who currently teaches and stages Bournonville Ballets world wide. She filled an empty spot and I can almost say that she brought healing. And I believe I am not alone when I say that healingis much needed, for virtuosity in performance does not always correlate with virtuosity in pedagogy. Just because a ballet dancer excels on the stage does not necessarily mean that he/she can also teach. While many are able to “give a class” to dancers; only a few can “teach a class.” Teaching ballet is grounded on knowledge and passion, which Ms. Elver has, plus the ability to transmit that visceral knowledge intelligently, coherently, and incrementally.
The teaching profession is a most giving profession, and givingcomes straight from the heart, unconditionally, and endowed with freedom. Karina Averty, former dancer with Paris Opera Ballet and Guest Principal Artist with San Francisco Ballet, whose classes I take at Steps on Broadway in New York City, embodies these traits. She has graciously pointed me in a direction where I can continue to grow, recommending international centers and teachers. Her teaching tools are love, compassionand encouragement, and her classroom is a ballet garden, where flowers can indeed bloom.
I am currently studying with Valentina Chtchepacheva, former Russian Ballerina and principal with Teatro Municipal, in Santiago, Chile. She understands a crucial fact about adult ballet dancers, that while we may be physically limited, ballet for us is a spiritual manifestation of our humanity, that through it we are lifting up to what is divinein all of us. And what better way to show our divinity than aspiring to dance like gods? I believe this can be achieved, but only with the guidance of remarkable teachers who not only have the ability to sculpt bodies but to sculpt spirits as well.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
Contemporary Ballet: How Contemporary is ‘Contemporary’?
I first studied Contemporary Ballet at San Francisco Dance Center, home of Alonzo King Lines Ballet, in those times when established companies began to open their company classes to help fund their companies. More than a decade later I have again the opportunity of taking Contemporary Ballet classes, now in New York, and I have the privilege to take them with Laura Bernasconi, whose classes I used to frequent with delight at San Francisco Dance Center. Her manner of teaching and her personal style caught my eye in those days, and even more today as I see the path her teaching career has taken throughout the years.
For most people Contemporary Ballet refers to a ballet technique known for its off-center turns and balances, floor work that includes turn-in positions, and innovating movements infused with modern dance technique, which are grounding yet also uplifting. The word contemporary itself specifically refers to the present moment and to events that are happening now, as we speak, such as the rise of the new consciousness, which is a big part of our contemporary world today. Yet my question is how much of this new consciousness is informing contemporary dance companies today? How many of them show a progressiveness of thought and heart and act accordingly?
We have to move on with the time, and must look at what the times are dictating if we are to survive, and our times tell us to cherish kindness, non-competitiveness, collaboration, and most of all, universal love. Yes, love, that word that has been so misunderstood and mistakenly used for centuries. This new consciousness also teaches us that we are all teachers to each other, which is an aspect that Ms. Bernasconi fully brings into her class; we are all teachers to each other inside the dance studio. Here is the example of a teacher/dancer/choreographer who has indeed moved on with the times! Her classes are infused with that positivism that makes all the difference. They are uplifting and empowering. They don’t foster envy but collaboration instead. Dancers are partners in learning and teaching and are encouraged to stand by their knowledge rather than hide behind their ignorance.
For me Contemporary Ballet comes from the inside out, not from the outside in, imposed by the will and art of a choreographer. Contemporary Ballet, to be truly contemporary should not instill fear, further the superiority of others, nor foster envy or create inadequacy. In truly contemporary ballet classes, there is no room for shame, nor for self-deprecation. The world is moving beyond the focus on the power of a few and the submission and endurance of abuse by the many. Today the trend is towards survival of the many through liberation and non-attachment.
Human beings are capable of self-renewal; accordingly we dancers are no longer passive victims at the mercy of our superiors; we no longer have to be prizes or muses. Instead, we are learning to be independent artists who can heal the world. Such healing takes place in Ms. Bernasconi’s class. With a healthful approach to teaching ballet which results in radiating compassion, empathy, genuine joy, in addition to sharing valuable information from all the movement methods that inform her teaching which speak for themselves (Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, Gyrotonic, Gyrokinesis, Hatha Yoga) Ms. Bernasconi stands as a leader in the contemporary ballet industry.
The Greek God Poseidon, god of the sea, storms, earthquakes and horses was the first to predict: “Love will come to rule the world. Women will rule the world.” But we can’t do it if we continue to play the role of a muse or continue to “pay the dues” in order to become professional dancers. We must move on with the times, become dancers, choreographers, and teachers who, like Ms. Bernasconi, radiate happiness, because those who are noble in thoughts and deeds gain happiness without trying (unlike those that by trying so hard to be happy never succeed.)
It has been said that the greatest part of happiness is wisdom. Applying these very wise principles of our emerging new consciousness to our ballet experience shows wisdom. Ms. Bernasconi chose to become wise, so did I. It is my hope that our example will encourage and inspire dancers (who may become teachers someday) to move towards independence, respect, humility, selfless collaboration and the creation of companies that will open their company classes motivated not by monetary needs but by the spirit of sharing.
We are learning to live in the Now, and if contemporary ballet does indeed reflect changes in consciousness, then Contemporary Ballet could very well become our dance of hope, for I believe it is up to the “cleansing will” of contemporary ballet dancers where hope lies. And when all comes to pass, it will all end in reconciliation and hope. Because after all that has been said about progress and change, let us not forget the words of Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow:
Each generation owes a measure of thanks to every member of the previous generation. They advanced the arts, making sacrifices for future generations, so by their efforts, however humble, they have earned a measure of our gratitude and respect.
Contemporary ballet cannot be truly contemporary if illumination is missing.
Image: Ardent Dancer by Richard Young. Oil painting of Drew Jacoby.
St Petersburg, Russia: The Cradle of Ballet
From Agrippina Vaganova, to Tamara Karsavina to Ekaterina Schelkanova.
If you know ballet, you know about Agrippina Vaganova and her legacy to the ballet world. The distinguished ballerina, choreographer and teacher developed the Vaganova Method drawing from the teaching methods of the great French Ballet Master Marius Petipa towards the end of the 19thcentury. The Vaganova Method, still taught today with integrity at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St Petersburg, came alive in front of my very eyes during the Vaganova Teachers’ Training Workshop I attended this summer in St Petersburg.
I had gotten on a plane with destination to St Petersburg with a book for light reading, the prima ballerina Tamara Karsavina’s autobiography, Theater Street, not knowing that on my way to the workshop I would be tracing her very steps in the city, from the street where she had lived on the canal where it curves round to join the River Fontanka to walking through the colonnades of Kazan Cathedral, the ones she used to count as a child in order to fall asleep. In her book, Karsavina shares her story as the daughter of a first dancer at the Imperial Ballet and former Petipa’s pupil and describes the rigorous system under which she trained, based on the Vaganova Method of course, which saw her rise to stardom during the golden years of ballet.
The Vaganova Teacher Training Workshop was led by Ekaterina Schelkanova and her teaching guests this year included renown ballet master Anatoly Sidirov (pas de deux), Elena Sherstneva (character dance) and Aleksander Stepin (acting). Ekaterina herself studied with Ludmila Safronova, one of Agrippina Vaganova’s last students, who eventually went on to develop the Vaganova curriculum. In addition, Ekaterina was soloist with the Kirov, now Mariinsky Theater, and with American Ballet Theater, and together with Anton Boytsov (Mariinsky Theatre) founded Open World Dance Foundation in 2010 with the purpose of promoting and preserving the tradition of the Vaganova Method within the context of professional ballet education. The intensive summer workshops is one of their many efforts to further this goal.
I participated in the workshop both as a dancer in the technique classes, which ranged from level 5 to 7 based on the Vaganova curriculum, and as a teacher in the lectures, observing how classes were taught the way it was done by the founders of the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Other participants included teachers from the United States, China and Argentina. We were totally immersed in the method and we witnessed how the method was dissected in order to impart a clear understanding of both the tradition and the technique. We do it all for the sake of beauty, Ekaterina would tell us. Mastering the creation of beauty is what we do in class. We create elegance, shape, and emotional harmony. She spoke of the smooth and clear classical line, free of distractions, pure, crystalline, unadorned, and of a professionally organized technique that does not look for freedom but for proper, and neither has entertainment as a scope but the creation of a living art of perpetual beauty. For us dancers she provided the most accurate images. In our minds we were dancing with ribbons in our hands, keys in our feet, slicing cakes and watching the fire line. Anything hurts, do everything a terre. When tired, save your feet and do everything with the upper body. As I listened to Ekaterina’s lectures and danced in her classes more than ever did I realize that, as Karsavina puts it in her book, nothing more is required of ballet than a perpetuation of tradition and a high level of execution. (p. 93)
I have always been an intrinsic student, I treasure learning for leaning’s sake, for the benefit of the now rather than the promises of the future. I have an insatiable taste for learning, reason why during my long and rather unorthodox years of training I never minded dancing in the back row, ignored by most teachers. Provided I was learning, little mattered to me if they knew I existed. Karsavina tells us that her father used to say who knows too much, grows old very soon. Somehow I never seem to mind about my age either. Besides as teachers, we want to know more and more so we can give endlessly because the teaching profession is a very giving profession; teaching is not about us the teachers but about them the students.
Ekaterina raised one question towards the end of the workshop: What are we going to do with the world of ballet? Nobody volunteered an answer, neither did I, but I do believe that ultimately what concerns us now is how to teach the masses who want to learn ballet, without asking ourselves what they will ever be able to do in the future with what we teach them today. I think Ekaterina, unbeknown to herself, answered her own question a few days later: Let’s stop exercising and make art, she said.
And I would add.
Let the embodiment of the classical spirit shine through that art.
I realize that teaching is not the conveying of your personal knowledge to the pupil, neither is it to model the pupil after your own individual shape. Teaching of art can only be based on what the consecutive achievement of the ages has built up—technique, in fact. (Karsavina, p.171)
Tamara Karsavina. Theatre Street. Great Britain: Columbus Books, 1988.
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